Intersection of Politics, Law Fuels Fighting

By David S. Broder
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 14, 2007; 2:44 PM

Throughout history, the Justice Department often has been at the center of controversy. And most of the fights, like the current storm over Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, have focused on the intersection of politics and law enforcement.

Harry S. Truman lost his attorney general, J. Howard McGrath, who was forced to resign. John Mitchell, who held the same post in the Nixon administration, went to jail, as did a successor, Richard Kleindienst.

Those were the extreme cases in modern times, but almost every administration has faced controversy. Gerald R. Ford Jr. managed to avoid it by appointing as his attorney general Edward H., Levi, a legal scholar from the University of Chicago with no political ties of any kind.

Jimmy Carter once proposed taking the Justice Department out of politics by giving the attorney general a longer term of office than the president--making him, in effect, a career civil servant.

But the idea went nowhere and Carter, like those who came afterward, filled the Justice Department with political allies.

When President Bush installed Gonzales as attorney general at the start of his second term, he was rewarding an old and trusted friend--the man who had served as his counsel in the governor's office in Texas and in the first-term White House.

It was hardly an unusual step. John F. Kennedy had installed his brother Robert, the manager of his presidential campaign, in the job--despite the younger man's lack of legal experience.

Ronald Reagan put his personal lawyer, William French Smith, in the job, and then moved him out in favor of an even closer ally, former presidential counselor Edwin Meese III.

Bill Clinton had a terrible time hiring an attorney general, with his first two choices bombing out before they came up for confirmation hearings. When he turned to Janet Reno as attorney general, he installed a pal from Little Rock, Webster L. Hubbell, a former law partner of Hillary Rodham Clinton's, as the deputy. But Hubbell soon was forced to resign and face charges of overbilling his law firm. And Reno, a former Florida prosecutor, became a favorite target of congressional Republicans--for her handling of charges against Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.

What this history suggests is that the administration of justice is a certain breeder of controversy. The Justice Department, as a branch of an administration headed by a popularly elected president, is inherently political. But the public expects an evenhanded approach, even from prosecutors and investigators who owe their jobs to political connections. Walking that line is a challenge that never goes away.

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